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Where the Fans Are
New formats broaden the base for tie-ins

By John-Michael Maas, Publishers Weekly, 4/28/2003

While mass market novelizations still capture a major share of movie
tie-in sales, entertainment companies that license film and TV
properties are starting to cultivate new formats like graphic novels
and video games, in ever-more integrated licensing programs. ‘It’s such
a competitive market, the more you reach out through many channels to
get your property noticed, the better,’ said Debbie Olshan, Fox’s
director of worldwide publishing.

Several factors make these other formats attractive. First, videogame
revenue hit $9.4 billion last year, topping movie box office returns
for the first time. Second, the market for graphic novels, particularly
Japanese comics or manga, while still young, is growing rapidly.
Finally, key retailers, such as Borders, Virgin and Tower, are working
to cross-merchandise novels, graphic novels, DVDs and videogames in
order to capitalize on all the constituencies in a given fanbase. As
Borders buyer Micha Hershman explained it, front-of-store multimedia
displays based on a single popular media property are simply ‘a massive
opportunity.’ When a media property operates in multiple formats, it
helps promote ‘format conversion’: bringing the audience for one type
of product to another, related one. ‘We’re making a big effort to make
sure we are displaying the products in a high-traffic area outside of a
single section,’ said Hershman, noting that the challenge is educating
the customer about unfamiliar formats.

More Formats, More Markets

For the licensors, the multiple formats help garner attention in a
crowded market, where traditional novelizations have lost ground due to
eroding mass market distribution. ‘The consolidation in ID distribution
means you generally need an event movie [for a mass market book] to get
into the mix,’ explained Risa Kessler, who handles publishing licenses
for Viacom. Meanwhile, the loss of mall bookstores-a key venue for
15-25-year-olds-doesn’t help. Licensed material needs to be ubiquitous,
Kessler pointed out, to create a sense of major cultural significance
for a media property. Multiple formats in multiple sales channels help
to achieve that.

As a result, licensors ‘are becoming more central to the development of
products,’ said Fox’s Olshan. Within the Hollywood studios, Newmarket
Press president and publisher Esther Margolis sees ‘a realignment of
the senior officers, so that ancillary division heads are talking much
more with the theatrical heads.’ Similarly, progressive publishers like
Diamond Books and Tokyopop enhance their own book properties by
adapting them to multiple formats, thereby gaining inroads for all of
their products at nonbook vendors like Electronics Boutique and Best
Buy.

Graphic Novels Gain Ground

Dark Horse Comics publisher Mike Richardson foresees that graphic
novels will move even more deeply into bookstores as the comics-buying
audience broadens and ‘because the perception of value for traditional
‘pamphlet’ format comics is low.’ Hershman noted that Borders’s
‘graphic novel section has physically tripled in the last five years.’

Graphic novels began their ascent with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight
Returns (DC Comics, 1986). ‘The rallying cry was, ‘comics aren’t for
kids anymore,’ ‘ said Richardson. Moving beyond superheroes, serious
work began to emerge in the late 1980s, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus
(Pantheon, 1986) and Concrete by Paul Chadwick (Dark Horse, 1986). Dark
Horse’s early efforts were critically acclaimed, but sales lagged. So
Richardson decided to apply the high standards of more literary comics
to his film tie-ins, hoping to sell more copies. He started with a
six-issue tie-in to Aliens (1988) that immediately took off, eventually
selling 550,000 copies. Dark Horse soon followed with another hit,
Aliens vs. Predator (1990), that sold well over one million. Fox’s
Olshan credits the comics as ‘valuable for keeping the franchise alive
in the community.’

One of the largest growth areas in graphic novels in the United States
has been in manga. At Borders, the genre accounts for 80% of graphic
novel sales, according to Hershman. Aside from its trendiness, two big
factors account for manga’s success: low price (usually around $10) and
small trim size (roughly 71/2’x 5′), Hershman said. Hopping on the
trend, mainstream U.S. licenses such as Miramax’s Spy Kids, Disney TV’s
Lizzie McGuire and Nickelodeon’s Spongebob Squarepants have issued
so-called ‘cinemanga’ tie-ins (all from Tokyopop).

Seeking to capitalize on manga’s popularity, some publishers are
reworking their larger graphic novels into the smaller format. The new
He-Man comics (CrossGen Comics) that tie into the Cartoon Network
1980s’ revival series are coming out in a format the publisher calls
‘traveler size.’ Hershman believes ‘it’s a great idea that they should
pursue more and more. In the graphic novel section, format is one of
the biggest obstacles to sales.’

Other publishers are exploring the classic trade paperback format for
their graphic novels, as Pocket did with Max Allan Collins’s Road to
Perdition, which was later adapted for film. Dark Horse went as far as
fashioning Andrew Vachss’s graphic novel Hard Looks: Adapted Stories to
look like his print novel covers from Vintage, even enlisting that
house’s designers. Richardson believes the cover will help the graphic
novel appeal to fans of Vachss’s other books. Edward Kastenmeier,
Vachss’s editor at Vintage, added, ‘By the same token, I think it gives
us a little access to the comic book market-which we’ve never had.’

Writers like Vachss contribute to an expanding adult audience for the
category. ‘In the last 12 years or so, there has been a huge increase
in comics aimed at a more adult audience,’ said Jeff Mariotte,
editor-in-chief of IDW Publishing. The house is publishing original
graphic novels based on the TV series CSI that will ‘approach the
degree of maturity’ of the show, which is aimed squarely at adults. The
CSI: Serial titles will hit bookstores in August. Illustrating the
point, Hershman invokes successful adult titles such as 30 Days of
Night (IDW Publishing), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (DC
Comics) and, of course, Road to Perdition (Pocket). ‘The New X-Men
books by Grant Morrison [Marvel] are clearly geared to adults,’ he said.

Tying into a major media property seems to be the most reliable way to
drive sales of graphic novels other than manga. ‘CSI will help get us
attention and allow us to borrow legitimacy for a wider audience,’
explained Mariotte. Hershman expects a much wider audience for graphic
novel titles like X-Men (Marvel) and The Hulk (Marvel) because they tie
in to major summer movies. Still, Dark Horse’s Richardson cautioned
that while big box office garners attention, it doesn’t automatically
translate to graphic novel sales: ‘It’s all about the strength of the
book. You can’t fool the fans.’

In addition to providing source material to several big summer films,
graphic novels are also influencing Hollywood in more indirect ways.
Although The Matrix was not based on a comic, it borrowed heavily from
the look and feel of graphic novels. In fact, that’s how the Wachowski
brothers got the movie made. ‘They had some of the world’s top comic
book artists make a complete storyboard of the movie, like an enormous
graphic novel,’ said Newmarket’s Margolis. ‘They showed them to the
execs, and that’s what sold the movie.’ IDW’s Mariotte sees a trend
there: ‘A lot of screenwriters and producers are pitching us ideas so
eventually they’ll have the ultimate way to pitch the studios.’ The
result is a promotional sales loop: IDW’s 30 Days of Night, by
screenwriter Steve Niles (Spawn 2), recently sold to Hollywood, which,
in turn, will help sell more comics if the film gets made.

Dark Horse has taken the process further by producing everything under
one roof. In addition to publishing comics, Richardson started Dark
Horse Productions in 1992, specializing in films based on DH comic
titles, like The Mask, Timecop and Mystery Men. That puts the house in
a unique position to create a groundswell around a property, and then
capitalize on its success in several mediums. Dark Horse also sells
licensed products, from coffee cups to baseball hats, for its titles.
‘They are phenomenal cross-merchandisers,’ said Borders’s Hershman.
‘Hellboy is doing well as a comic, though it’s still bottom tier by
mass market numbers, but they’re building a base for when the movie
hits [in 2004],’ Hershman added.

Videogames Grow the Market

Videogames complete the media/tie-in triangle. Their enormous
popularity has spawned not only movies like Tomb Raider and successful
narrative novels like Halo: The Fall of Reach (Del Rey, Apr.), but also
graphic novels. ‘Videogames definitely help sell comics. Graphic novels
for Tomb Raider [Image Comics] and Resident Evil [DC Comics] were both
big,’ said Hershman. Both also got an additional bump from related
films. There has already been one Hellboy videogame and another will
accompany the film’s release next year.

As these formats converge, writers are becoming more fluent in all of
them. UbiSoft hired Max Allan Collins to draft its CSI video game after
he had written both novels and graphic novels for the property.
UbiSoft, meanwhile, ensured the game would fulfill the expectations of
the series’ more mature fanbase. ‘We’re raising the bar in terms of
narrative and trying to make [the different mediums] fit together,’
said publishing v-p Jay Cohen.

The Matrix videogame was written and directed by the filmmakers, which
has created additional opportunities: it will be the first game to
coincide with the release of a film, and the story of the game actually
dovetails with and expands upon the events in the movie. There is also
an anime Web site (and DVD) called The Animatrix. But there are no mass
market books or graphic novels available because the filmmakers were
unusually particular about the licenses. ‘It makes you want to tear
your heart out,’ said Hershman. Newmarket is printing 7,500 copies of
the large-format book, The Art of the Matrix (Newmarket 2001), which
sold 30,000 copies after the first film, impressive for a $60 price
point (the price will drop $10 through December).

Dark Horse’s Alien vs. Predator series brings the process full circle.
Based on two film franchises (Alien and Predator), the comics inspired
a series of videogames and now a film is in development. If the film
gets made, it will sell more graphic novels and videogames and likely
generate an audience for new productions.

Richardson is delighted by all the activity, but stressed that each
property will sell only if it succeeds on its own merits. Then, tipping
his hand to his first love, he added: ‘Comics are one of the few truly
American art forms. Like jazz.’

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